The American South has a complex and disturbing history. People around the world associate the south-eastern United States with the horror of slavery and the KKK. The South is also the frequent butt of jokes based on the stereotype of Southerners as ignorant hillbillies. The region’s slow, drawling accent is distinct, and other Americans often slag Southerners for it. But those lazy stereotypes are only one side of the coin. Because of the region’s horrifying history, it is also the place where people stood up with enormous courage to change the culture of ethnic segregation and Jim Crow.
Monday, 15th January is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday in the USA. And the Rev. King is also an icon of the South. Today, the home where King was born in Atlanta, Georgia is open to visitors as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. The park also includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King, his father and grandfather preached and the King Center where he is buried. Atlanta is a vibrant, modern city – the complete opposite of the stereotypes about the Deep South. King accepted a post as a minister in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, and was involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white man. Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had travelled to speak in support of a sanitation workers’ strike. And Memphis is a must-see destination for fans of American music history. It’s home to Graceland, Sun Studio, the Gibson Guitar factory and some world-class music museums.
More Stops on the Civil Rights Trail
Tuskegee, Alabama is not on the radar of most people visiting the USA from Europe, but it offers real insight into the South. Alabama is arguably the deepest of the Deep South. But in addition to its traumatic history and legendary southern charm, this town is also an example of the duality that exists in the southern USA. With a tagline of “the epitome of history, heritage, hospitality”, Tuskegee features museums dedicated to George Washington Carver, the famous botanist and inventor; Booker T. Washington, author, presidential advisor and founder of Tuskegee University; and the aviation museum dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of African-American pilots who distinguished themselves in WWII.
Of course, New Orleans, Louisiana is also in the South. Jazz and history lovers – as well as anyone who likes a good time – will love this unique city. It isn’t typical of the South, but it is a great reminder that you can never stereotype a whole region. Famous for its wild and extravagant Mardi Gras celebrations, New Orleans is home to a vibrant music and cuisine culture.
Nature and Culture in the South
The state of Mississippi is as good a place as any to visit Old Man River. The Mississippi flows from Minnesota right down to Mississippi where it veers into Louisiana to empty itself in the Gulf of Mexico. If you like the broad, majestic Shannon, prepare to be amazed by the Mississippi. Take your pick of national or state parks and enjoy the vastness of this natural marvel.
For a region frequently stereotyped as ignorant, the Deep South has produced quite a lot of iconic American writers. Mark Twain was a southerner, and his work examined the region’s culture and fraught race relations with wit and profound humanity. From William Faulkner to Zora Neale Hurston, the South is home to a whole pantheon of American literary greats. Alice Walker, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee were all Southerners. And the region has given us more modern authors too including Anne Rice, John Grisham and Barbara Kingsolver.
Stereotypes about the South shouldn’t put anyone off visiting the region. While there are individuals who live down to those stereotypes, they certainly don’t represent the region and all it has to offer. Whether you are considering a long-term job or a couple of weeks’ holiday, the American South is a fascinating place with complex and inspiring history.